3c. Gender and migration

While it is beyond the scope of this pamphlet to deal with this question in detail, it is important to note that experiences of migration and settlement are powerfully gendered. Under capitalism women perform a disproportionate amount of unpaid work and experience inferior pay and conditions for paid work. This is enforced through discriminatory attitudes and violence, and interacts with oppression on the basis of country of origin and immigration status to produce conditions facing women refugees that are more than simply ‘gender plus racism’. Within recent popular typologies of migration to Britain, women have been largely invisible. The economic migrant is usually constructed as young, male and highly mobile, either without a family or sending money to ‘dependents’ in their country of origin.[1] The asylum seeker has also often been presented as young and male, although in this case idle in unemployment, and frequently a sexual predator after young white women, who are also portrayed in a passive role as victims.[2] Gender violence has frequently been discounted as a legitimate grounds for asylum, ignoring the penetration of the state into domestic relationships and the way that state policies create the conditions for violence in both sending and receiving contexts.[3] Where women have featured as migrants in dominant discourses, it has often been in the context of racist fears of population growth of migrant communities, whether through ‘family reunification’ with migrant workers or refugee families who are depicted as a drain on welfare resources. In all of these roles, women who migrate from oppressed countries to Britain are portrayed as passive, dependent on either a male family member or the British state, and contributing nothing.

In reality, women have migrated to and from Britain for centuries, with varying degrees of control over their lives, but always as political actors. Migrant women and their descendants have played leading roles in struggles across diverse public arenas, including the workplace, with the Grunwick strike from 1976–78 in Willesden, London, just one of the more famous,[4] and the Gate Gourmet strike in 2005 at Heathrow Airport one of the more recent.[5] They have faced particular forms of harassment and degrading treatment by the state, including the use of ‘virginity tests’ at Heathrow Airport in the 1970s.[6] Before paid work was prohibited for all refugees without status in 2002, it had already been prohibited for many refugee women since 1996, on the basis that only a family’s ‘primary claimant’ for asylum was entitled to seek work, and this was often a male member of the family.[7] More recently, requirements have been imposed for women to pass English language tests in order to move to Britain to join family members, at the same time as changes to funding and charges for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes have reduced women’s access to lessons. Women have also played an active role in refugee organisations of all kinds.[8] For refugees with children in Britain, caring responsibilities often make the prospect of avoiding deportation by living ‘underground’ even more difficult; this may be a contributory factor to the high levels of participation of women refugees with young children in many public campaigns.


[1] Palmary, I., et al., Eds. (2010). Gender and Migration: Feminist interventions. London, Zed Books.

[2] For discussion of related issues see Psaroudakis, S. N. (2010). ‘An arm hanging in mid-air: a discussion on immigrant men and impossible relationships in Greece’, in Gender and Migration: Feminist interventions, edited by I. Palmaryet al. London: Zed Books, 196-214.

[3] Chantler, K. (2010). ‘Women seeking asylum in the UK: contesting conventions’, in Gender and Migration: Feminist interventions, edited by I. Palmaryet al. London: Zed Books, 86-103; Kiwanuka, M. (2010). ‘For love or survival: migrant women’s narratives of survival and intimate partner violence in Johannesburg’, in Gender and Migration: Feminist interventions, edited by I. Palmaryet al. London: Zed Books,

[4] Davidson, S. (2011). ‘Jayaben Desai 1933-2010’. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!(219 Feb / March).

[5] Eskovitchl, J. (2005). ‘Gate Gourmet at Heathrow union undermines workers’ solidarity’. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!(187 Oct / Nov).

[6] Smith, E. and M. Marmo (2011). ‘Uncovering the ‘Virginity Testing’ Controversy in the National Archives: The Intersectionality of Discrimination in British Immigration History’. Gender and History, 23(1), 147-165.

[7] Dumper, H. (2002). Missed Opportunities: A Skills Audit of Refugee Women in the Teaching, Nursing and Medical Professions. London.

[8] WLRI. (2005). Women refugees – from volunteers to employees: a research project on paid and unpaid work in the voluntary sector and volunteering as a pathway into employment. London: Working Lives Research Institute.

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